Ladies and Gentlemen,
I want to thank the organisers for bringing us together for this very timely discussion on the legal framework for parliamentary elections in Lebanon.
We are now at a historical moment for Lebanon – a moment that presents us with a chance of breaking with the institutional crisis of the past years and resuming the efficient functioning of state institutions, in the interest of the Lebanese people. A President has been elected, a Prime Minister has been designated and, hopefully, a government will be soon formed. These events have been a source of optimism and inspiration, for the Lebanese themselves, for international partners, for investors. We are now all awaiting the efforts to form a new government that will be tasked with tackling the urgent challenges that the country is facing.
But further in the horizon, an important deadline is approaching: the expiration of the Parliament's extended mandate and the subsequent elections.
In Lebanon, just as in EU countries, elections are not opinion surveys for politicians to test the public mood or their level of popularity. They are a key instrument for citizens to exercise their democratic right. International law recognises the right to vote in genuine and periodic elections, by universal suffrage and secret ballot. This right belongs to the people, to the electors, and cannot be taken away by the elected.
During past weeks, and even during past years, a lot has been said about the reasons behind the long period during which the Lebanese could not exercise their right to vote, and a lot of blame has been exchanged. But in spite of the disagreements on the causes for this long stalemate that stretches back to 2013, I think everyone in Lebanon agrees that the country has paid dearly for the absence of elections during that period.
This is why we have always maintained from the European Union side that a postponement, for whatever reasons, is not a good solution. We are all aware that when we discuss the forthcoming parliamentary elections, we are also touching upon very complex political issues. But even in this case – an effort from all sides is needed to put partisan interests aside and create the conditions for the free expression of will of the Lebanese people.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The European Union is a long-term donor in Lebanon in the field of electoral reform. Since 2013, we have supported the Ministry of Interior through the UNDP Election Assistance Project, but also civil society, including the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, for projects amounting to almost 7 million Euro (€6,8 million). We have deployed election observation missions in Lebanon in the past, including in 2009, and look forward to an invitation from Lebanese authorities for the 2017 elections.
During the recent municipal elections, I visited myself several polling stations and diplomats from the EU and the EU Member States toured the country to see how the voting process was taking place even in remote areas. We visited polling stations all over the country (in Beirut, Zahle, Jib Jinine, Saghbine and Rashaya; Jounieh, Bifkaya, Byblos and Sin el Fil; Saida, Nabatieh and Jezzine; Tripoli, Douma and Batroun).
And I am happy to say that we were very impressed with the level of professionalism of the election administration and the strong feeling of citizenship and engagement of the Lebanese that we saw during the elections. We also noticed the impressive work of security agencies, which flawlessly managed a complex electoral process.
Our witnessing of the municipal campaign not only confirmed our faith in the ability of Lebanon to hold free and fair parliamentary elections, but also the relevance of our recommendations that were made after the 2009 elections by the EU electoral observers.
As you may know, we as EU do not have a position on political aspects of the electoral law that are now heatedly debated - such as the electoral system (majoritarian, proportional or mixed) or the number of districts. EU Member States have different systems and there is no universal solution. But we do have an opinion on the more practical aspects of how to organize elections. Our recommendations from 2009 touch on technical and practical aspects that can improve the quality of the election process. And they are largely the same aspects that Lebanese civil society, experts and academics have been voicing and advocating for during the past years. And the municipal elections reconfirmed this.
Let me mention a few of them:
Voter and candidate registration. Voter and candidate registration currently is tied to the place of origin and not the place of residency. Allowing for greater flexibility and free choice would empower citizens to have a greater say in areas to which they are more attached and where they have built their lives.
Lack of official pre-printed ballots. Absence of official pre-printed ballots can be a factor encouraging vote-buying, as unofficial pre-printed ballots can be tracked and be used to put pressure on voters. This goes against the principle of voting secrecy. Distribution of ballots around polling stations by party delegates is also a form of political campaigning that could be avoided. Therefore having official pre-printed ballots would greatly improve the quality of the elections.
Women representation. The dismal number of women candidates and women elected reaffirms the need for appropriate measures that would enable improvement of women’s political representation. Quotas can be an option, in particular in a proportional system. Statistics show that countries where women are empowered in politics and business are better off than those where they are not. This is not just about advocating women rights – it is about using the country's human potential to its full extent, avoiding a situation where half of the population's talent and ability is simply overlooked.
Supervisory Commission for media access and campaign financing. The timely setup of the supervisory commission, already foreseen by the law, would be a step towards greater oversight over campaign expenditure and media access. It is therefore something that we encourage strongly for the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
Lack of enforced election silence. In many municipalities, during the latest municipal elections we witnessed active political campaigning during voting day. While very positive, electoral silence, which should ideally be started one day before the vote, can help to protect freedom of choice and prevent intimidation or voter inducement.
And last but not least, persons with disabilities. During the municipal elections, we saw many polling stations accommodated in non-accessible buildings for senior citizens or persons with reduced mobility.
Improving the legislative framework in line with Lebanon's international commitments and best international practices would certainly be a great step for the country's political life. However, failure to agree on amending the existing electoral framework is no excuse for failing to hold elections periodically as established by the law and the Constitution. We cannot take away from the citizens their right to vote. Better to make full use of the limited time available and to agree on an electoral framework that is accepted by all, all in a spirit of compromise and consensus.
So let me conclude by encouraging all parties to engage constructively on the issues of electoral reform and the holding of timely elections. The EU is ready to continue to offer our support whether in the field of electoral reform or sending electoral observers. And on that note, I would like to thank the Lebanese authorities for their good cooperation with the EU-funded UNDP Election Assistance Project, and all those who are contributing to its success.
Thank you for your attention and we look forward to a good and productive discussion today.